Addressing Fluency: SSR , Round Robin, and other Well-Intentioned but Misinformed Interventions (and what to do instead)

We know that ensuring high-quality Tier 1 instruction is the first step toward ensuring every child can read. What teachers in secondary are often faced with is not knowing how or what to do what when kids come to us and they still can’t read well or struggle to read. Through a blog will address common misconceptions about reading intervention, evidence-informed alternatives, and a brief “what can this look like” in the general English classroom. 

When Choice Reading Isn’t the Best Choice

Much of the conversation around reading intervention is seen through the romantic lens of “if we just get them to love reading, everything will fall into place”. As a recent graduate of a teacher preparation program, and a literal hoarder of books, I know the feeling of just wanting kids to love reading. Further, through programs like Silent-Sustained-Reading and Drop Everything And Read (DEAR), this has all but become an intrinsic part of our school day (heck, even I remember SSR time in my school days). 

However, Jan Hasbourch, who in 2006 completed an extensive study of oral reading fluency with Gerald Tindal, tells us that for students who are not yet fluent, silent reading is not the best use of classroom time

In the primary grades when children are still being taught to read, the idea of refraining from independent reading times intuitively make sense. As a secondary teachers, however, especially in the upper grades, the conversation is less clear as we are supposed to be able to assume that the students coming to us have already been taught how to read proficiently. Emily Hanford’s reporting revealed that this just isn’t the case.

Given the stagnant reading proficiency rates in our schools, and the use of 3 cueing instruction in elementary grades, my concern is for the many students who left elementary school still unable to read. Research indicates that lack of fluency may be a foundational issue resulting from reading instruction in the primary grades. 

Even in High School, Fluency is Key

Dr. Louisa Moats tells us that as teachers of older students who did not learn the foundational skills of reading, addressing reading fluency with grade-level text is particularly crucial (fluency as defined by the NRP is automaticity in word recognition, or decoding, and prosody). 

In addition, Tim Rasinski concludes that word recognition and fluency are major contributors to reading deficiencies early on, but when students do not master these fundamentals, they are likely to not only continue in later grades, but have a profound and adverse effect on overall reading achievement. And indeed, in a study of 300 high school students by Rasinski and Padak et al titled Is Reading Fluency a Key for Successful High School Reading? they found that:

  •  a lack of fluency accompanies the difficulties in comprehension. 
  • the fluency levels of the 9th grade students were below that of 8th grade fluency norms. 

Per Rasinski, this means that about 28% of the variation in student achievement on the high school graduation test could be accounted for by variation in students’ reading fluency. This matches with Shahanan’s conclusion that reading fluency differences account for about 25% of the variance in reading comprehension. 

Still, whether 25 or 28%, that’s a lot of kids. 

For those familiar with the science of reading, we may be inclined to think that the students just need more phonics if they aren’t fluent readers. However, Shanahan’s advice is more nuanced than that.

He notes:

  • For the students below the 30-35th percentile, they should have a program that provides a systematic program of instruction that offers at least some explicit phonics instruction. 
  • But for students in the 35-49 percentile span (i.e., kids who are at grade level to about 2-3 grade levels below level) they should do more work with grade-level texts in the classroom. 

So: even with a heterogenous classroom with a wide range of proficiencies, we should still focus on grade level, knowledge-building texts rather than isolated comprehension skills on choice books if our goal is to build fluency.  

Repeated Reading of Real Texts: Rationale and Practice

Something I’ve come to understand in the recent months is that prior to this school year, I was engaging students in a type of round robin reading: 1-3 proficient readers read the article aloud while the rest of us follow long (and this is a no-go).  Further, I had taken to just reading aloud large portions of the text and using audio books while, again, most students just follow long. Though this practice does ensure everyone can access the grade level text, it doesn’t allow students the opportunity to practice reading the text on their own. In other words, it’s just a temporary crutch

Here’s the situation: Many American children are not fluent and proficient readers by 8th grade. Without intervention, we can assume this continues in the later grade. Further, when reading dense, unfamiliar, or archaic texts (such as those that appear in Language Arts and History) fluency can change depending on the complexity of the text. 

As such, Shanahan advises that even good readers may benefit from oral reading work when working with historical texts. 

So, middle and high school teachers: we’re not exempt from doing the work of fluency instruction. Paired reading, a fluency strategy in which more fluent readers are paired with less fluent readers, is an evidence-informed alternative to what we’ve been taught to do.

For the Classroom

Back in August, I wrote abstractly about how I planned to teach reading in my literature class, but keeping in mind the advice from Rasinski and Shanahan — that high-quality fluency intervention should include oral reading as opposed to silent reading, repetition of the same text, and guidance or feedback–here is a how I have started to change my approach to reading thus far: 

Pre-planning, adapted from Solomon Kingsworth’s Reading comprehension: a new approach

  • Read and annotate the article or passage for analysis
  • Note key vocabulary and background knowledge 
  • Note “sticky” comprehension points ahead of time (points where if students don’t understand this, they may get lost). 
  • Note points to stop, summarize, and ask a text-dependent question. 
  • Plan high-low pairs of students for paired reading. 

In Practice:

  • Teacher reads aloud ~1 page from the document/excerpt for analysis, modeling their thinking and stopping to summarize at key points
  • Teacher instructs student pairs to re-read passage (or continue reading in pairs), stopping after the points that you have pre-planned) to discuss, summarize, and switch reading with their partner. 
  • Teacher has sentence stems and/or discussion questions for the whole-class discussion after reading. 


Resist the urge to give your students easier or differentiated texts such as those with adjustable lexiles (looking at you News ELA). While this may give them an immediate feeling of success, much like the Fountas and Pinnell repetitive texts, it is a false sense of proficiency and does not set them up for being able to parse through the language of the difficult texts required in other courses or beyond K-12. Believe in their ability to become more fluent and proficient readers, drench the classroom in discussions around the universal themes, and make reading come alive (it works). 

Follow me on twitter and say hello.

(Or better, come to researchED Philadelphia and hear me and other teachers talk about reading and other research-informed stuff). 



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